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Exergy Tour Preview with Janel Holcomb: Big names come out to play in Boise

The women's field racing at the 2011 Cascade Classic. This week, the top women in the sport head to Boise, Idaho for the inaugural Exergy Tour.

The Exergy Tour, which begins Thursday in Boise, Idaho, aims to showcase some of the top women of international cycling. The race marks the resurrection of a much-loved stage race held in Idaho in the 1990s. That race was known for its length and difficulty and for the elite list of women who won it. The new Exergy Tour takes place for the first time this year and its tagline declares the race a showcase for "The Power of Ladies Professional Cycling." There is a prize purse totalling $100,000 on offer, which is nearly unprecedented for a women’s race.

The race also carries a UCI 2.1 ranking, which means there are precious points on offer ahead of the Olympic Games in London. Certainly, there will be riders in Boise hoping to seal their Olympic selection prospects with some big results. The promise of UCI points and the prize purse has brought some big names out to play in Boise. Olympic gold medalists Kristin Armstrong and Nicole Cooke, World Champion Giorgia Bronzini, U.S. national time trial champion champion Evelyn Stevens, former world time trial champion Amber Neben, and silver medalist in the 2011 world championship time trial Linda Villumsen are among the top-level riders on the startlist.

To the Exergy Tour the preview it deserves, I called in an expert. Janel Holcomb rides for Optum p/b KBS and last year, she won the overall at Cascade Classic and the individual NRC title. The NRC title rewards the most consistent rider on the U.S. circuit. Holcomb has spent the past several days in Boise scouting out the course.

First, an overview. The Exergy Tour runs fives days total. It includes a prologue and four stages. There is a 17 kilometer time trial and three road stages. The stages are relatively short, which should make for aggressive racing throughout. “The top riders have the fitness to race hard every day,” said Holcomb, and she expects the teams’ tactical decisions to be as decisive on the course as the riders’ fitness.

The prologue is short and sweet. “It’s awesome and not too technical,” said Holcomb. The riders should cover the course in four minutes or less. Prologues are pretty much all about power. But even on a relatively straightforward course, there are technical issues to consider. “It’s for riders who can put out the power and handle the technical aspects of being in the right gear, turning the bike,” concluded Holcomb.

The first road stage should suit the sprinters. The two Queen of the Mountain summits might offer some opportunities for some feisty attacking, but there's not much road there. The final ten kilometers are mostly flat, which gives the sprinters’ teams plenty of room to bring back any cheeky escapes. This is a good stage for a rider like World Champion Giorgia Bronzini.

After the sprinters have their fun, the time trial specialists have their day. Stage 2 is a 17.2 kilometer time trial. It’s mostly flat. Sometimes in these short stage races, the time trial can take on an outsize importance and shut down the race just like that. “I don’t think the time trial will be decisive,” said Holcomb. At 17 kilometers, the stage is relatively short, which makes it likely that the time gaps will stay close.

Watch for local girl and gold medalist Kristin Armstrong of Exergy, U.S. national time trial champion Evelyn Stevens of Specialized-lululemon, former time trial world champion Amber Neben of Specialized-lululemon, Linda Villumsen of GreenEdge, Alison Powers of NOW/Novartis - really, there’s some talent on this startlist. Also, look out for young rider Jade Wilcoxson, Holcomb’s teammate at Optum. Wilcoxson finished third at the women’s invitational time trial in Bakersfield last week.

Sunday’s queen stage runs from Crouch to Idaho City, and includes two significant climbs. The course ends with a long descent to the finish, though, so it will take some crafty racing to make a difference here. The climb to Beaver Creek Summit is around 15 kilometers in length. “The climb is long, but it’s only a 5% gradient, so it may not be decisive,” said Holcomb.

The shorter Mores Creek Summit follows, then it’s a long descent to the finish in Idaho City. It’s not a stage where the course will make the race, so much depends on how aggressively the teams attack the two climbs. “It’ll come down to tactics and teams, not just fitness,” said Holcomb.

The Exergy Tour finishes with stage 4, a hilly circuit race around Boise. “The last stage could be the most decisive. There’s a hard climb before the circuits,” said Holcomb. She rated the Cartwright Road climb as “long enough to be a climber’s climb.”

The rest of the circuit is all up and down and should favor attacking riders. “It’s a lot like the Sunset stage at Redlands, but not as repetitious,” said Holcomb. That Redlands stage often overturns the overall, so it’s possible that the Exergy Tour could be decided on the final day. This final day’s stage is also short, which if the riders show up to race, could make for a day of exciting, attacking racing.

The Exergy Tour has attracted some big time names to Boise this year. Kristin Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Amber Neben, Giorgia Bronzini, Linda Villumsen, Nicole Cooke, Fabiana Luperini, Megan Guarnier — these are some of the top riders in the sport. The Exergy Tour has UCI points on offer, and it’s the last chance saloon for teams and countries to pick up points ahead of the Olympic Games. “Are teams here for UCI points or Olympic qualification? That could mean that it’s raced differently,” said Holcomb. Riders with Olympic hopes might influence team tactics in unexpected ways.

There is one other source of suspense in this race. The field combines teams who don’t race against one another all that often. That means there is a chance for a less-well-known rider to cause trouble. “These are teams who aren’t used to racing one another,” said Holcomb. She expects that tactics will determine the outcome, and that element of uncertainty could play into the hands of teams who race aggressively.

Still, the teams are going to have a big task to beat Boise-local Kristin Armstrong. She could win it with the time trial, and put her team to the task of controlling the rest of the stages. Armstrong crushed the Bakersfield time trial last week, and took 1:24 out of second-placed Alison Powers. But that race was much longer at 29.7 kilometers, and it did not include top riders like Specialized-lululemon’s Neben and Stevens.

It will take some hard riding to dislodge Team Exergy if Armstrong throws down big during the time trial stage. Specialized-lululemon, Team Tibco (if they get bikes in time), NOW/Novartis, Optum p/b KBS, and GreenEdge are all expert at playing the attacking game. The combination of this top-level field and the short, punchy stages should make for exciting racing in Boise.

Watch for daily photo galleries from Chris See starting tomorrow!